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Dispatches: New Twist in a Flawed US Asylum System

Twelve Central American mothers and children among the 121 detained over the weekend in immigration raids in Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina received emergency holds on their deportation Tuesday based on their attorneys' arguments that they were deprived of a meaningful opportunity to present their asylum claims in immigration court.

A stroller inside a room in one of the barracks of an immigration detention center at the Federal Law Enforcement Center (FLETC) in Artesia, New Mexico, on June 26, 2014. © 2014 AP Photo

All of those picked up had received an order of deportation from an immigration judge. In a statement on Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson claimed that they had all "exhausted appropriate legal remedies," suggesting that their deportation orders came after a real and fair opportunity to present their asylum claims. But attorneys who have had access to some of the families arrested over the weekend said those they spoke with hadn’t understood the legal process, the immigration judge's finding, or their appeal rights.

It's within the government purview to regulate migration and carry out fairly issued deportation orders. But what we know about the United States asylum adjudication system the Central Americans face raises grave concerns that others among the 121 families – and more who could be arrested in coming days – didn’t have an adequate opportunity to seek protection.

The arrested families are part of a highly vulnerable population. Killings in El Salvador spiked 70 percent last year, making it a contender for murder capital of the world. Neighboring Honduras has been leading the world in its homicide rate for several years. Most of the over 100,000 families who have crossed the southwestern border in the last year are from these countries and Guatemala, where unchecked organized crime and violence against women prompts many to flee.

Though nearly 90 percent of these families who were detained upon arrival were found to have a credible fear of returning home that could result in a legitimate asylum claim, a very small percentage have convinced immigration courts they should be allowed to stay. The majority of those whose cases have been decided – over 70 percent in one study – didn’t have a lawyer to help them make their claims. The study found that families who had representation were almost 20 times as likely to receive a grant of protection.

US law doesn’t guarantee a lawyer to people facing deportation, though an immigration court decision can be the difference between life and death. It is not clear how many of those arrested last weekend had adequate counsel and opportunity to present their claims. But the government has prioritized the immigration hearings of Central American families seeking asylum, creating a "rocket docket" that gives families little time to find lawyers or prepare their cases.

This is all part of badly conceived crisis policies we have documented since the summer of 2014 that use harsh enforcement, including the detention of small children, to deter people fleeing harm from crossing the border to seek protection in the US.

There are more humane, smarter alternatives, including making the asylum process more accessible, ending family detention, addressing immigration court understaffing, inefficiencies and injustices, expanding protection to include threatened people who don’t fall within very narrow asylum guidelines, and, as the administration says it will now be doing, pursuing meaningful regional refugee processing for Central Americans outside of their countries of origin.

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